Murphy back up and running - carefully

Heineken Cup: Untimely break hit country and club almost as hard as the magical player, but recovery is going well

Had he been a racehorse they would have put a screen around him and shot him on the spot. Fortunately, Geordan Murphy runs on two legs rather than four and the good news for Leicester and Ireland is that he is back in his stride. Last Wednesday, he had his first training session with his Leicester team-mates and if he was glad to see them the feeling was mutual.

"It felt fantastic being out there with the guys again,'' Murphy said. "I joined in the backs session and did some speed work and running. I was a bit nervous about the leg and I kept away from contact. I've got to look after it.''

One small step for a man, a giant leap for Murphy, who had his left leg shattered in a freak pincer tackle while playing for Ireland against Scotland at Murrayfield last September. To describe it as an unlucky break is an understatement.

The match itself was nothing more than a routine exercise before the World Cup. The next day Ireland announced their squad for Australia and Murphy's name would have been first on the list. Instead he was lying in an Edinburgh hospital.

"I'd never broken a bone in my body before,'' he said. "But I immediately knew this was a bad fracture. It was the way the leg snapped. I felt the bones in my sock. I was pretty devastated. The first thing that went through my head is that I would miss the World Cup. As I was stretchered off I tried to keep my face covered up from the TV cameras. I didn't want people to see how desperate I was.''

His girlfriend Lucie, watching the match on television, took a flight from London to be at his bedside. "At the time I thought the injury was the worst thing that ever happened to me,'' Murphy said. "I was rock bottom. In time you begin to put things in perspective and realise that a lot of people go through a lot more. You become a bit saner when you're not bed-ridden.''

The timing of Murphy's career break could not have been worse. He was in the form of his life last year for club and country, being named player of the season for both Ireland and Leicester. Neither side were the same without the attacking skills of a man famously described by Dean Richards, the Tigers director of rugby, as the "George Best of rugby''.

"That line has been regurgitated endlessly,'' Murphy said. "And I have had a fair share of abuse over it. My priorities have always been the priorities of the team.''

George Murphy, a former colonel in the Irish Army, played only Gaelic football but nevertheless fathered six children - five boys, Nick, Etienne, Brian, Ross and Geordan, and a daughter, Maeve - all of whom played rugby union at Naas in Kildare on the outskirts of Dublin.

Kevin West, a New Zealander, was the first coach to recognise Geordan's talents, at Newbridge College, Naas. West was responsible for sending young Murphy on an exchange visit to Auckland Grammar School. "Physically he had to grow up,'' West said. "And he matured on that trip.'' West took Murphy, whom he switched from stand-off to full-back, into senior rugby before writing references to Leicester and London Irish, requesting a trial.

While attending De Montfort University in Leicester, Murphy joined the Tigers in 1997 and was capped by Ireland at Under-18 level. He made his senior international debut against the US in 2000, scoring twice, and was Leicester's top try-scorer the following season.

In 117 appearances for the Tigers he has scored 468 points including 55 tries. Even so, his total of 20 caps for Ireland is a modest figure and it was only last season that he became a Test regular. Richards was always bemused by Ireland's stance, pointing out that Murphy would have been an automatic choice for England.

Would he have won more caps had he stayed in Ireland? "I can't answer that,'' replied Murphy who will be 26 in April. "If rugby had not gone professional I might have played Gaelic football. If I had stayed in Dublin I might not have played for Ireland at all, but I don't want to look at what ifs. Leicester are a great club and I am very happy there.''

After winning back-to-back Heineken Cups in 2001 and 2002, the Tigers, already savaged in the Zurich Premiership, are also looking endangered in Europe and today find themselves in the hostile territory of Ravenhill in Belfast where they meet Ulster.

"When I joined Leicester I had a lot of experienced figures around me,'' Murphy said. "To lose seven forwards to the World Cup was bound to make it a tough season. We are in a rut but will climb out of it. There are some terrific young players coming through. Perhaps this season was a bridge too far. The supporters are not used to seeing us lose but the tide will turn.''

Murphy's role today will again be that of a frustrated spectator. The World Cup was bad enough. After an operation in Edinburgh he convalesced at the family home in Naas - "I was waited on hand and foot'' - and watched his Leicester team-mate Martin Johnson lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

"I thought about going to Australia but decided it would not have been good for the rehab,'' Murphy said. "Before Ireland left I visited the team hotel to wish them well. That was one of the toughest parts. They were all gutted for me. Ireland could have beaten Australia and then it might have been a different story, although I always fancied England to win the World Cup.'' What if Murphy had been out there to keep Brian O'Driscoll company? Murphy doesn't like what ifs.

After months of solitary in the gym his recovery is ahead of schedule and he may be back for Leicester against London Irish on 22 February. "My left leg is still a bit sore and weak but I am getting there. I don't want to jump the gun. My leg might fall off tomorrow.''

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